Who created Frankenstein?

Back in January 1818, when an anonymous novel appeared in just five hundred copies, with a dedication to William Godwin, many assumed that must be the work of Godwin's disciple, Percy Shelley.

Today, we know better. A brilliant young woman, not yet eighteen, took up the challenge that Lord Byron laid down to his guests at a rented villa beside Lake Geneva in the stormy summer of 1816. Two years later, as Mary Shelley and her husband prepared to leave England for five years in Italy, Frankenstein was published.

Claire Clairmont was among the first to exult in her step-sister's remarkable achievement: 'How I delight in a lovely woman of strong and cultivated intellect,' she wrote to Byron, who agreed. ('Methinks it is a wonderful work,' he told his publisher in May 1819, while drawing attention to the youth of Frankenstein's precocious author.)

Mary, nudged by her husband, had sent Byron an inscribed copy of the book. But the homage which most pleased her came later. Writing to his recently widowed daughter in 1823 at a time when she was in particular need of consolation, William Godwin told her that Frankenstein was 'the most wonderful work to have been written at twenty years [Mary was actually nineteen] that I have ever heard of.' Coming from an estranged father not known for the lavishness of his compliments, this tribute was praise indeed.

In 2000, back at the time that my biography of Mary Shelley was first published, criticism of women's writing was still governed by the New Feminism. Throughout the previous thirty years, particular emphasis had been granted to the influence of Mary Shelley's mother upon her daughter's personality, her actions and her work. This slant obscured the fact that Mary, motherless since her birth, was also, and perhaps even more, the product of her father's views on education, of his philosophy and of his own work as an admired and original writer of fiction.

In 2000, I emphasised Godwin's influence on his daughter's personality and her work. In 2018, a year in which we celebrate the centenary of women's suffrage, the connection linking Mary Wollstonecraft to her daughter is once again being stressed at the expense of her widowed spouse. Surely, speaking at a time when the hardwon battle for gender equality is almost won, justice can and should be done to the man who actually brought Mary Godwin Shelley up, gave his only daughter the run of his own remarkable library, oversaw her education, praised her scholarly achievements and nurtured her brilliance? 

Ardent believer in equality though he was, Godwin encouraged his daughter, from the first, to see herself as set apart from Fanny Imlay, her older half-sister and Jane (later Clare) Clairmont, the sparky daughter of his second wife.. A comet had appeared in the sky just before his own Mary was born. She learned - presumably from her father - to interpret it as a sign of things to come.

And thou, strange Star, ascendant at my birth
Which rained, they said, kind influence on the earth,
So from great parents sprung I dared to boast
Fortune my friend...

Great parents, indeed. But one, whose glowing portrait hung upon the wall of her first London home, lay buried in the nearby churchyard of St Pancras. It was from Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin's gravestone that her small daughter learned her first letters. It was Wollstonecraft's Original Stories, a collection of tales for children, illustrated by William Blake, that introduced the little girl to the tale of a man who ran away from civilisation, as Frankenstein's Creature would do, to live alone, dependent upon the kindness of strangers. It was her mother's best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that taught young Mary to take pride in gaining her independence, finding her own voice, making her own way in the world. It was Mary Wollstonecraft's description of herself in Letters from Norway as misery incarnate, adrift in Scandinavia on a mission undertaken to assist a feckless lover, Gilbert Imlay, that helped to give Mary Shelley a voice for her Creature's despairing sense of his isolation.

The Creature's sense of having been unjustly outcast derived more clearly from Paradise Lost, a book that Mary may first have discovered on the shelves of her father's library.

William Godwin had, from his first weeks as a widower, recognised the need in his daughter's life for a mother to educate and nurture her. 'I am the most unfit person for this office,' he told a female friend in the autumn of 1797; 'she was the best qualified in the world.'

There were women - Mary Hays and Maria Reveley foremost among them - who clustered around the bereaved philosopher's house in the wake of Mary Wollstonecraft's death. And Godwin, despite his grief, was not slow to seek a second wife. He was cruelly disappointed to be rejected, first by Harriet Lee and then by Maria Reveley (who turned him down in favour of a cultivated merchant, John Gisborne). He courted Elizabeth Inchbald. He dropped hints about his loneliness to Wollstonecraft's friend, Mrs Cotton.

All of these women became regular visitors to Godwin's home in the Polygon at Somers Town. But it was from Godwin's male friends - the men who dined at his table and looked aside when the great man nodded in one of the frighteningly regular attacks of  narcolepsy from which he suffered  - that little Mary Shelley seems to have drawn her first literary inspiration.

Godwin's circle, formed in the years when his sober but inflammatory Enquiry concerning the Nature of Political Justice (1793) had turned him into a hero of the Left, was truly remarkable. His home in Somers Town became a private dining-club for some of the most brilliant brains of the time. Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt were regular visitors. The brilliant Irish barrister, John Curran, became a close friend.

Charles Lamb may have fuelled young Mary's sympathy for outcasts with tales of a wistful and despised monster called Caliban. (Charles and his sister Mary famously adapted Shakespeare's plays into children's tales.) It was from another regular diner at Godwin's table, Anthony Carlisle (the doctor who was in constant attendance during Mary Wollstonecraft's last hours of life) that young Mary heard firsthand accounts of galvanism: of corpses that had been electrified into a state of animation, opening their glazed eyes and moving their lifeless limbs. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to whose vivid recitation of parts of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner she was a witness at the age of nine, introduced Mary to imagery - of solitude, of icy wastes - that would form the most familiar landscape of her own unhappy outcast: the Creature.

An equally important source for Mary's inspiration welled up from the novels written by her own father.

Little known today outside small circles of scholarlship, Godwin's novels were widely read during his life. Pioneering works, they were rich both in plot and ideas. Things As They Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), perceived today as the first detective novel, gave Mary the idea for the story of a fate-driven pursuit, in which the pursuer (Frankenstein) and the pursued (the Creature) are inextricably entwined, just as Falkland and Williams are in her father's novel. St Leon (1798) - a firm favourite with Lord Byron - provided food for thought about scientific quests and the secret of life.

Fleetwood, a critique of Rousseau's educational theories, had a different impact upon her life. The  book was published in 1805, at a time when Mary's own upbringing was preoccupying her recently remarried father. In June 1812, Godwin despatched his daughter northwards. She was to spend almost two years as part of the  Scottish household of Thomas Baxter, close to Dundee. While warning Baxter that ongoing poor health might mean that Mary needed to be 'excited to industry', Godwin also made it clear that the fourteen-year-old girl was not to be indulged. No 'extraordinary attention' should be granted to his child:  'I am anxious that she should be (in this respect) like a philosopher, even like a cynic,' he told Baxter. 'It will add greatly to the strength and worth of her character.'  

Fleetwood, while it did not directly influence Frankenstein, governed Mary and Shelley's romantic decision, in 1814, to establish a commune in Switzerland, together with Mary's step-sister, Claire Clairmont. The admiration that Fleetwood displayed for Switzerland's political system (Godwin himself had never been out of England) may also have encouraged the trio's momentous decision, in 1816, to join Lord Byron by Lake Geneva, in the summer during which the idea for Frankenstein was born.

The full extent of Godwin's influence upon his daughter's first, and most celebrated novel remains unproven. Much, for example, has been made of the fact that it was during the autumn that she was composing Frankenstein that Mary read Paradise Lost. It was from Milton's great work that she took both the Creature's voice (as Lucifer, the outsider) and his decision to wreak vengeance. (Lucifer's 'Farewell, remorse, all good to me is lost. Evil, be thou my good,' was echoed in the Creature's proclaimed decision: 'Evil thenceforth became my good.')   It is less noted that Milton's works stood on the crowded shelves of Godwin's home library: a library to which his daughter, from her first years of reading, enjoyed unrestricted access.

Did Mary recognise and wish to acknowledge the degree to which her father's ideas had helped to form her own? The dedication of her book, published in January 1818, two hundred years ago, provides the answer.

To WILLIAM GODWIN, author of Political Justice, Caleb Williams, &C. These volumes are respectfully inscribed by the author

   Added: Thursday 01 February 2018